CANBERRA, Australia — Australia on Friday gained enough international support to defer for two years an attempt by the United Nations’ cultural organization to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status because of damage caused by climate change.
UNESCO had recommended that its World Heritage Committee add the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem off the northeast Australian coast to the World Heritage in Danger list, mainly because of rising ocean temperatures.
But Australian-proposed amendments to the draft decision at a committee meeting Friday in China deferred the “in danger” question until 2023.
In the meantime, a monitoring mission will visit the reef to determine how the impact of climate change can be managed.
Representatives of 16 of the 21 committee nations apart from Australia spoke in favor of the amendments before the committee accepted the position without a vote. Only Norway argued for the reef to be listed “in danger.” The committee usually makes consensus decisions.
Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley said during the virtual meeting that downgrading the reef’s status before the committee had finalized its own climate-change policy made no sense.
“Delegates, we ask only two things: time for experts to see firsthand our commitment to the reef, its present condition and our management, and for the final climate policy to provide a consistent framework for addressing the impacts of climate change on all World Heritage properties,” she said from Australia.
In 2014, Australia was warned that an “in danger” listing was being considered.
Australia had time to respond by developing a long-term plan — the Reef 2050 Plan — to improve the reef’s health.
Since then, the reef has suffered significantly from coral bleaching caused by unusually warm ocean conditions in 2016-17 and last year. The bleaching damaged two-thirds of the coral.
Australia reacted angrily last month when the draft decision was published to remove the network of 2,500 reefs covering 134,000 square miles from the World Heritage list it joined 40 years ago for its “outstanding universal value.” The “in danger” listing is one step away from losing all World Heritage standing.
“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” Ley said at the time.
Many in Australia’s conservative government saw the move as an attempt to pressure it into committing to reducing the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050 and to stop allowing coal mines to expand.
In arguing for the reef’s downgrade, UNESCO World Heritage Center’s marine program coordinator, Fanny Douvere, referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that global emissions needed to fall to zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Greenpeace said in a statement that the committee had missed an opportunity to shine a light on Australia’s neglect of a natural wonder.
Jodie Rummer, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, had said the “in danger” designation was needed to get Australia to act on climate change.
“I think that’s the wake-up call that we need here in Australia, very much so,” Rummer said. “It’s the wake-up call that we need to cut our emissions and commit to net zero. It’s the wake-up call that we need to really put that spotlight on the Great Barrier Reef.”
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